Die Bergkatze brings us poignantly yet triumphantly to the end of an era, being the last of Ernst Lubitsch's German comedies. The director, best known for his "sophisticated" bedroom farces from the 1930s, carved out these little gems in his youth, and while rather different in tone and pace from his Hollywood work, they provide a unique and hilarious experience that should not go overlooked.
As if in anticipation of his forthcoming change in style, Die Bergkatze was Lubitsch's most riotous and stylised to date. Whereas he often based gags around a large group of people doing something (such as falling over or running away) simultaneously, he now takes the trick to the level of hyperbole, playing around with the largest horde of extras to be seen outside of an epic. Lubitsch has also turned his sense of the absurd up to eleven, and the picture is flavoured with dozens of wonderfully silly touches, such as the fort commander's exaggerated uniform having an extra pair of shoulder pads for the elbows.
Of course, Lubitsch was still to make a couple of straight dramas before receiving his invite to Hollywood. I'm sure he didn't know this was to be his comedic last hurrah in Berlin. So why is Die Bergkatze such a ridiculously extrovert production? The answer is almost certainly the director's confidence. Lubitsch was by now the most prestigious filmmaker in his home country, and his bizarre comic genius had gone down a treat with the public. Having more or less Carte Blanche from the studio, it seems that with Die Bergkatze he was seeing just how much he could get away with. He was also getting bigger budgets than ever before (prior to this he had helmed Anna Boleyn, Germany's most expensive production to date), it should come as no surprise to those familiar with the earlier comedies directed by Lubitsch and with sets designed by Kurt Richter (perhaps the most important collaborator during this part of Lubitsch's career), that if you unite these two with a large sum of money, you are bound to get something as gloriously demented as a fort that looks like a giant wedding cake covered in cannons.
Even in post-production, Lubitsch is playing around more than ever before, giving us those crazy frame shapes which look almost like a deliberate attempt to poke fun at the masking technique pioneered by DW Griffith five years earlier. Lubitsch was always a real aesthete when it came to shot composition, often delicately framing his actors with the luxurious curtains, window panes and assorted ornamentation that tended to make up the exquisite sets, both here and in Hollywood. In Die Bergkatze he has just literalised the process, treating the image as a work of art that could be either landscape or portrait, and once in a while mucking about and turning the screen into a squiggle or a pair of jaws.
And does Lubitsch get away with what he is doing? Yes, by the skin of his teeth! Why? Because Die Bergkatze is all of a piece. Considered individually, each of its exaggerations would be daft and distracting, but because Lubitsch has created a seamless world in which every idea is stretched to breaking point, it works. Every shot has some kind of oddity in it, not necessarily thrust in your face, but simply keeping the surreal tone going. No character is immune. In silent comedy in the US, women (at least the young women) tended to be treated with tender respect, and were often the only completely straight characters. But in Die Bergkatze we have a straggle-haired Pola Negri up to her neck in undignified antics alongside the boys, and doing a fine job of it, although I have to say I find myself missing the divine Ossi Oswalda, star of many earlier Lubitsch pictures.
Lubitsch's comedies after this were contrastingly sedate in pace and comparatively sensible in tone. This was not a regression, but neither was it an advance on these earlier chaotic creations. It was simply a case of a genius taking his talent in a different direction. And despite the neglect and underrating of pictures like Die Bergkatze, Sumurun, Die Puppe and Die Austernprinzessin, they are nevertheless inspired masterpieces, and every bit as worthy of our attention as The Marriage Circle, The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise.
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